Book Arsenal

12th International Book Arsenal Festival: on the edge of pain and fest


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For the second time since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the International Book Arsenal Festival opened its doors. This year, the book festival significantly expanded its schedule with more than 260 participants, seven curatorial and special programs, and over 160 events that involved 100+ publishers and five bookstores. Even though last month’s Book Country Festival gave Kyiv the opportunity to buy books, roughly 35,000 people visited the International Book Arsenal Festival. This year saw an increase in attendance by 7,000 from 2023 and only 1,000 less than in 2021 — the last festival held before Russia’s full-scale Ukrainian invasion. By all accounts, this year’s International Book Arsenal received impressive attendance and has been a success. Read on to discover how the Book Arsenal united people and what surprises unfolded during the event.


Between pain and fest


This year’s International Book Arsenal Festival took place one week after the terrible missile attacks that burned down “Factor-Druk,” Kharkiv’s largest printing facility. A special festival stand, called “Books Destroyed by Russia,” included what was left of publications that were being printed on Thursday, Apr. 23. The exhibit smelled of smoke and ashes. Among the volumes being printed during the missile strike were “Words and Bullets,” a series of interviews with military personnel and volunteers by Natalia Kornienko; “Happiness Hunters,” a collection of short stories by Valeriy Puzik, Ukrainian writer and soldier; and a number of books written for children. 

Calls to support “Vivat,” one of the publishing houses hit worst by the attacks, could be heard from every stage of the festival. (As a reminder, you can and should order their books here and now.)

A day before the Book Arsenal began, paramedic and journalist Iryna Tsybukh was killed in action. Many events began with a minute of silence for all those who have fallen at the front line. The loss of several popular authors was felt at the festival: Hlib Babych, a poet who died at the front in 2022; Maksym Kryvtsov, a poet killed in action in January 2024; and Victoria Amelina, a poet whose life was cut short by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk just a few days after last year’s Book Arsenal. Collections of works by each of these poets are available to order. Readers are also welcome to pre-order a collection of works by poet and designer Mykola Leonovych, who was reported missing on Apr. 27, 2023, during a mission near Avdiivka.


“Last year, the International Book Arsenal Festival opened with an event that was very important to Victoria. It was dedicated to the memory of Volodymyr Vakulenko, the Ukrainian author whose diary Victoria found buried in his garden under a cherry tree. This year, the Arsenal is also being opened by Vika, but she will speak through our voices,” Ukrainian journalist and author Olena Huseinova said at a reading of Amelina’s poetry. 


On the final day of the Book Arsenal, Volodymyr Vakulenko, Oleh Kluphas, Maksym Kryvtsov, Ihor Mysiak, and Ilya Chernilevsky were commemorated in a music and poetry event entitled “Opus Doloris. Polyphony.”


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“This year’s Arsenal is an incredible event. There’s so much life here, even despite the unbearable pain that Ukrainian society is experiencing right now, despite the terrible news about the death of beautiful Ukrainian girls, despite the news from Kharkiv. There’s a celebration of life, books, reading, and learning. In my opinion, this is a way to survive these terrible times. More exactly, this is what keeps us going. It’s a mixture of hope and pain and suffering,” said Tetyana Malyarchuk, a Ukrainian author who came to the Book Arsenal from Vienna.


The festival was largely dedicated to the themes of military experience and war. More than 80 Ukrainian writers currently serve in the Armed Forces. While many are volunteers and serve in civilian roles, almost all have friends or relatives at the front. Prominent among the many projects supporting current military needs and visibility was the “Send Books to the Front” project hosted by the “Kulturnyi Desant” (Cultural Forces). 


Well-known and new voices


The presentation of “Words and Bullets” was a heartwarming event that left many visitors with a sad aftertaste. The event included writer and soldier Anatoliy Dnistrovyi, journalist and war correspondent Yevhenia Podobna, poet and editor of Chytomo Oleksandr Mymruk, and poet and soldier Dmytro Lazutkin. Due to the massive destruction of the Factor-Druk printing house during the print run of “Words and Bullets,” the conversation took place without a physical copy of the book. Consequently, the discussion became even more poignant, revolving around the inaccessibility of materials documenting the war and the experiences of those living through it, the search for language and formats for recording, and the quest to find ways to convey the truth. 


Despite bitter circumstances, the festival still left participants steeped in a festive feeling. 

“It is so wonderful to see the life of literature and culture here now. Just like the Kyiv in Valerian Pidmohylny’s texts, today’s Kyiv is dynamic, it is full of desirous and curious people. Our niche discussion about translation was attended by dozens of people, far more than would be the case at other international festivals,” said translator Jakob Wunderwald. 


This year, an important focus for the Book Arsenal was literature written by actual warfighters. In addition to the individual and shared stands for veteran publishers decorated with camouflage netting, visitors could get acquainted with war literature during discussions and presentations. The most prominent of these were “Being a Military Man/Woman Today,” “New Biographical Texts (About) the Military: Between Documentary and Fiction,” “Words and Bullets: Freezing and Rediscovering Language,” “How to Write About War: Writing and the Image of a Veteran,” and the presentation of a collection of military accounts entitled “The Little Yellow Excavator.” 

“The publishing industry shows fantastic adaptability and vitality. This festival is not just a place for professional events and market players, but a place where we cling to each other. We can meet “our people,” share our joys and sorrows, and feel a sense of community. The fact that we have it and that we are keeping it while all these circumstances are still happening is extremely important,” said Iryna Nikolaychuk, founder of Creative Woman Publishing.


Lines at the entrance were longer than ever before. People had to wait more than an hour to get in, sometimes in the heat or the rain. This was due partly to additional security measures, a necessity during martial law, which included searches of personal belongings and passing through metal detectors at the entrance. 

“The Book Arsenal has always struggled with lines, and they’re still here. I’m happy to see some things never change,” joked literary critic Tanya Petrenko. 


The national defense conditions exceeded all expectations. Not a single air raid alert or explosion interrupted or prevented any event from taking place. There were no power outages during the festival, despite Russia’s recent shelling of Ukraine’s power grid. Festival director Yulia Kozlovets felt relieved to say that much of their security preparations were precautionary.


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“There’s a lot of work done that is not seen by others to make everyone feel comfortable behind the scenes. For example, we didn’t need our backup power system, which we prepared in record time in response to blackouts in Kyiv that started just two weeks before the festival began.”


Kozlovets added that because of last year’s smaller festival format, it was possible to plan this year’s festival on a larger scale, even during martial law. We focused on improving technical aspects, providing additional room facilities, and developing more themes and programs. 


“Foreign agents” at the Book Arsenal Festival


The Book Arsenal festival featured a “Book Arsenal Fellowship Program 2024,” a mobility grant for supporting visits by foreign publishers. The program included more than 50 business-to-business meetings. Although aware of potential risks, all participants attended without fear.


Georgian publisher David Kakabadze traveled to Kyiv from Tbilisi, where he had been attending protests against the “foreign agents” bill, which was enacted on June 3. (We will soon discuss the law’s potential impact on Georgia’s publishing market in an interview with David.)

Jakob Wunderwald, Marcin Gaczkowski, and Miroslav Tomek – translators of Valerian Pidmohylny’s “The City” into German, Polish, and Czech respectively – were among the fearless foreign guests.


“Ukrainian wartime humor is a phenomenon that cannot be translated into any language or culture,” Gaczkowski told Chytomo. “I don’t even know how to talk about it, how to describe poets in military uniforms, how to retell conversations about the war. There is no answer, so I just keep writing about what matters.”


The success of booksellers  and publishers, and undelivered print runs 


Among the 100 publishers and five bookstores that participated, all left the festival satisfied.


Olena Rybka, lead editor of Vivat Publishing House, said that their participation in the festival was crucial after the Russian missile strike on the “Factor-Druk” printing house in Kharkiv last week. 


“The number of foreigners who approached us, showed interest, and inquired about us was impressive – those who caught the acrid scent of smoke and burnt paper at our stand, featuring books destroyed by Russia, this was organized by the Mystetskyi Arsenal. This connection is incredibly valuable,” she said.

During the festival, the publishing house sold approximately 3,300 books and processed over 2,000 orders, proof that the event was productive for Vivat and other publishers alike.

“This year’s Book Arsenal was our most successful book festival in terms of sales, surpassing our performance at any previous book festival. We sold approximately 1,600 books and 100 pieces of publishing merchandise, totaling twice the revenue of the 2021 Arsenal and two and a half times that of the 2023 Publishers’ Forum in Lviv,” said Oleksiy Zhupansky, CEO of Zhupansky Publishing House, an independent publisher from Bucha specializing in translated literature.


One of the most pressing questions at the Kharkiv Book Fair was how the shelling of Kharkiv, the destruction of the Factor-Druk printing house, and other threats are impacting the development of the book industry in Ukraine, both now and in the future. As a publishing leader and symbol, Kharkiv was a topic of discussion at events and in private conversations.


On the Edge


The festival’s theme, “Life on the Edge,” aptly reflected the reality of all visitors and participants, both verbally and visually. 

“Arsenal is a place where bright people gather in dark times,” said Alim Aliev, Deputy Director General of the Ukrainian Institute.


“When I return and see the city alive, investing in culture and what truly matters, it’s very inspiring. Nowadays, people love to speculate about ‘what we’re all standing for’ – events like this negate those foolish words,” said paramedic Iryna Venzhyk.

“We are alive. As long as books are published and read, the country lives. I am delighted by the huge queue at the entrance. It is wonderful and incredibly powerful that during a period of devastating full-scale war, people are standing in line for books,” said Olena Maksymenko, war correspondent and paramedic with the volunteer battalion Hospitallers, agreeing with Venzhyk’s sentiment.


Networking and having the chance to reunite with colleagues, acquaintances, and friends from other regions and countries became one of the best parts of the Book Arsenal. Although Serhiy Zhadan, who had delivered impressive poetry readings in Kyiv just a week before the Book Arsenal, wasn’t present in person, he might well have responded to his absence with a quote from his recent song: “We’ll see each other tomorrow, let’s live until tomorrow!”


The Kyiv Book Arsenal is a part  of “Promoting exchange between the German and Ukrainian book & literature industries” program.


Text: Victoria Feshchuk, Olesia Boyko

Comments: Daryna Holovan

Translation: Iryna Saviuk, Iryna Baturevych

Copy Editing: Ben Angel, Terra Friedman King, Joy Tataryn

Photo: Roman Shalamov, Serhii Handusenko, Anna Putylina, Artem Hvozdkov, Oksana Gadzhiy, Valeria Landar, Daryna Holovan